The Power of the Youth Ministry Volunteer

October 10th, 2009


I was miserable as a youth pastor. I hated my job, resented my boss, and feared the board, so I got out. But four years later, I'm still at the same church working with the same kids. I couldn't leave, so I changed my role. Now I'm a volunteer, and I discovered something I wish I'd known from the start. Power in the church is something you give, not something you take.

I was young, and this youth pastor position was my first real job. I had vision. I had ideas. I had energy. I had almost entirely no help—my first mistake. I set out to change the world one kid at a time, unaware of the many problems associated with going it alone.

I visited local schools, spent time hanging out at the BMX park, and called every single kid who had visited the church in the last few years. And the program started popping. We went from 10 kids to 100 in those first three years. Meanwhile, the base of steady volunteers grew from one to three. I was already in trouble, but I didn't know it.

Consider the number of kids you can manage. If we're talking junior high, it's not that many. Looking back, it all seems so predictable. When I had 40 middle school students crowded into a room with one adult volunteer to assist, stuff happened. Elders and the senior pastor usually didn't appreciate that stuff.

Part of it was the program. It was geared to kids with little church background or Christian connection, and that's the type of kid who came. At one point, more than a third of the regular attenders had a criminal history—from running away to violent offences. Kids, like adults, tend to carry their baggage with them. We had foul language, vandalism, threats of violence, and stolen property. But most of the time, we managed to have a lot of fun, and these kids were hungry for truth.

By this time, I'd diagnosed the problem, so I asked for help. I wrote letters, left phone messages, met with committees, put notes in the bulletin, developed rotation schedules, and signed up a lot of emergency-back-up types. (Those are the volunteers who say, “Call me if no one else shows up.” Unfortunately, they also tend to have caller ID and never answer last-minute phone calls.)

I was finally aware of the problem but felt powerless to solve it. The elders offered advice. The committees said they'd pray about the need. The pastor wanted results. I was stuck—mad at myself for getting to this point and mad at the church for its seeming refusal to step in and help. I was told we needed to rethink the direction of our youth ministry. The junior high program was canceled.

New problem: Jesus had stolen my heart and given it to those kids. I prayed that Christ would teach me to love as he loved. He answered by filling me with a passion for the desperately lost—kids whose lives had fallen apart, kids who knew they needed something more than what they had.

But even though my heart had plenty of room for those misfit kids, my new job description did not. So I quit my job and offered to minister as a volunteer.

I was afraid the church might reject my offer. But this was before I'd learned about power in the church. Though most churches are loosely organized as hierarchies, the power to act originates from the bottom of the pyramid, not the top.

Volunteers are the success of a program. David Batstone, author of Saving the Corporate Soul, wisely points out that the leadership structure in American churches is typically top-heavy. We expect youth ministers to be charismatic speakers, creative planners, wise counselors, organizational geniuses, and capable in crisis. But even if such a person exists, she's probably already retired on the proceeds from her bestselling book. Volunteers help fill in the gaps.

And with most youth ministries, gaps are the rule, not the exception. Thanks to low pay and high turnover, most youth pastors are young. That's spelled: inexperience. But don't panic. The church, Christ's body, is filled with people who have debilitating weaknesses. Actually, I don't think any other kind of person exists. That's why Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, our comforter. And that's why we have spiritual gifts. God gave us the necessary tools to prop one another up as we struggle to live and minister in loving unity. He never intended us to go it alone.

Youth pastors, however, are often left on their own to struggle with the details of fundraisers, vehicle maintenance, attendance records, and set-up/clean-up. Even those who are masters at delegating work must face the fact that, ultimately, the work is their responsibility. If it doesn't get done, guess who has to step in and do it.

Volunteers don't have to do anything. They have freedom to offer what they have whenever and wherever it's needed. And there's plenty of room for assistance. The nature of the job attracts ministers with a relational bent, and while youth pastors often put their focus on getting to know kids, they must also juggle the programmatic expectations of parents and staff. Here's where volunteers have the power to step in and help make their youth pastors successful.

Volunteers also have power to influence kids. My dream was to change the city one kid at a time. Although the one-at-a-time philosophy is the only way to exact lasting change, it's extremely slow going. Needy kids require a long-term investment. If every mature, adult Christian in your church picked one kid to talk to, spend time with, and pray for, your church would become the kind of community where truly no child is left behind.

So I've proven my point. You need volunteers. But for most of the preached-at choir, it's a dead horse I've been beating. You know you need help. The question is how.

You need a vision. Volunteers aren't attracted by your program needs, but they'll be inspired by the picture of what the ministry can become. I was spinning my wheels, wasting my time on phone calls and bulletin announcements. I needed to communicate a call to mission. Instead, I focused on a program and looked for people who would fill the empty slots in my machine. Nobody aspires to be a cog in someone else's wheel, but people will sacrifice almost anything for the chance to truly make a difference.

The Plan

Creating a vision requires a plan. Think strategically.

Phase One: Data Collection

The kind of information necessary to develop a strong plan might include demographics such as primary languages spoken in the community, per capita or household income, and highest education completed by members of the local workforce. But a thorough study must also consider community needs (social, political, economic).

This may seem like an overwhelming task, but you must understand the real and perceived needs of your community if you hope to offer something of value. Here are some questions to focus this work: What do local kids do with their spare time? What do their families look like? Where are they most likely to spend their money? What are their problems, both big and small?

Then there are the internal realities of available budget, strengths of already-committed volunteers, and the culture/structure of your church.

Remembering that power comes from the bottom of the organizational pyramid, the savvy youth pastor will get help from parents, students, staff, and anyone else who's willing. Look at the information. Consider what it really means.

Phase Two: Vision Development and Goal Setting

Notice that no program has yet been created. There's no inherent cultural need for Bible study small groups, youth worship teams, or Christian concerts. You may have experience with these kinds of programs; they may have worked in your last church or a church in a nearby neighborhood. But programs are tools. These tools are useful to the extent that they help you realize your goals. But if you don't have a big vision with specific goals, you're not ready for programs.

Again, include people, but be careful that the end result is neither too broad nor too narrow. A vision statement that tries to meet every need—real and perceived—will only result in an unwieldy inclusion of every issue with no real prospect of progress on any front. An organization cannot be all things to all people. Those that try are crushed by the weight of their own mandate and its associated expectations.

Meanwhile, parents and other church members will come to the process with their own agendas. Some want big events and lots of kids no matter what the cost in spiritual depth. Others will bring up their own experiences as if the programs of the past were the only good things that have ever happened in youth ministry. Remember that programs aren't the focus yet. And consensus is key, even if it requires more time. If one group is successful in skewing the focus to its own needs or desires, the ministry may fail to address greater, community-wide issues.

Phase Three: Developing a Plan of Action

This phase involves determining what you will do to fulfill the vision. The people—volunteers, students and staff—who will be living with these programs must have ownership over the process. Give them the opportunity to determine what activities are needed and make a commitment to lay down any that aren't.

Finally, plan to evaluate everything you do recognizing that no program is permanent or inflexible. Continuously measure whether you're moving closer to the realization of your vision.

You may point out that I haven't actually mentioned anything about recruiting volunteers. But I have. Let me illustrate:

The local United Way office had back-to-back years of declining donations, so it was time to try something new. For the 2003-2004 fiscal year, the charity largely replaced solicitations for money with requests for donated time. Thousands responded with an interesting result. Those who volunteered also gave of their money, and in much larger amounts than ever before. The local branch of this non-profit organization had its most successful fundraising year on record.

They discovered that people who have a hands-on experience begin to understand these local programs' capacities for changing communities. They catch the vision, and they can't help but want to give.

In the same way, including real people in the process of defining a vision, setting goals, and creating programs is the most effective form of volunteer recruitment. People who struggle with you to cast a vision become invested in seeing that vision work its way into reality. And investors will sacrifice almost anything to see their work come to fruition, to join you in making a difference.

That's when you'll face a different kind of problem: a vision is more than an inspiration, it's also contagious.

I still work at the same church. I'm a volunteer. I coordinate a Bible study program. We started with five kids and have grown a little each year. We have more than 30 signed up for next fall. It's not a very big program, and that's part of the problem. I started the small group study sessions on my own, and now we have one volunteer for every two kids. Just this week, a friend called with the names of three potential volunteers she plans to invite to our next event. Seeing as we have so many adults involved, she wanted to make sure it would be okay to add a few more.

Of course, I said yes. I know that the more people who offer help, the more time I have to do what I like—spending time with kids—and to do it well. And I've learned a lesson about what it means to be a part of God's kingdom, the church. God didn't call me to work with teenagers. I was called me to be a part of God's body, and I was equipped for service to some of its younger members.

But God's wisdom helped me recognize my own weaknesses, not as failings, but as opportunities for increased unity and interdependence with my fellow worshipers. May you be blessed in the same way.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.